Conductor Jonathan Sternberg has died aged 98. A pioneering figure in the early years of the LP era, he made a number of premiere recordings with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He also conducted the European premieres of several contemporary American works.
Born to Austro-Russian parents in New York, Sternberg studied the violin as a child at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School), before going on to study musicology at New York University and later Harvard. His conducting debut came in 1941 with the National Youth Administration Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Copland’s An Outdoor Overture. After studying for a summer with Pierre Monteux in 1946, he moved to Austria a year later where he soon made his debut with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
It was in this period that Sternberg made his most notable contributions to the LP era: he conducted a number of premiere recordings in 1949 for the Haydn Society, including the Nelson Mass and several of the symphonies, all of which he edited himself post-production. His recording of No 48, Maria Theresia, was described in these pages as ‘a performance of pioneering zeal’. In 1950, Sternberg recorded five more Haydn symphonies with the Vienna Symphony, as well as the premiere of Mozart’s Serenade No 9, Posthorn, K320 with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra; the latter recording was praised in Gramophone’s June 1953 issue for its ‘robust, positive and literal’ interpretation. It was also with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra that he recorded Alfred Brendel’s on-disc premiere: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 5 for Nixa in 1951.
Over the following decades Sternberg took conducting posts at the Halifax Symphony Orchestra (1957-58), the Royal Flemish Opera (1962-66) and the Harkness Ballet (1966-68). He also conducted a number of European premieres, including Ives’s Symphony No 2 with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 1952, and Menotti’s Violin Concerto with Fredell Lack and the Berlin RIAS Orchestra in 1962. After the Vienna years there were no more commercial recordings except for a performance of Leslie Bassett’s Variations for Orchestra with the Radio Zurich Symphony Orchestra in 1963 for CRI (now New World Records).
In 1971, Sternberg became Professor of Conducting at Boyer College of Music in Philadelphia. He retired in 1989, and 20 years later he received the Conductor’s Guild Award for Lifetime Service.